Once upon a time, there was a knight who had lost her way. Divorced from her court and her lord, the knight had taken refuge within a forest that did not care for her.
Now, the knight wished to leave the forest, and rejoin the world. And while the forest would have been glad to simply rid itself of her, this intruder set in gleaming red metal, with hair raven’s black, it also had use for her.
“You felled my trees,” said the forest, its voice a slight, whispering wind among the autumn leaves. “Built your shelter. Killed my animals for food, and made flames upon me. You owe me, knight. And this is the price you shall pay … “
The forest told the knight about another intruder, one who’d shown no intention of leaving. The knight’s mission was to take this intruder from the forest with her when she left. If she did, the forest would clear the knight’s way back into the world.
“Beware,” said the forest, twisting some of its many limbs to point the knight’s way. “This intruder is clever. Craftsome. He will attempt to play games with you. Games that humans do not win.”
The knight nodded her assent and accepted the forest’s quest. Then, she began walking in the direction of the intruder.
After two days’ journey, the knight happened upon the intruder. He looked exactly as the forest had described: a light-skinned man dressed in a cloak of feathers and thorns, with a blue mask atop his face and a crown atop his head. The knight drew closer and saw that the stranger’s mask was not a mask. The blue hue was part of the stranger’s face; it had also overtaken his hands.
The knight put a hand to her sword and crept toward the strange man, attempting to use the trees as cover. But the stranger must have seen her, because before the knight could close the distance between them, the stranger said, “Come out, little knight. We’ll play with words, not swords. I do oh so hate rules, but this one’s likely to keep us both from harm.”
Without understanding why, the knight dropped her sword and emerged from her hiding place. She and the stranger stood and faced one another, underneath the branches of a gnarled, old oak tree. The stranger smiled a dark smile.
“It is a shame,” said the stranger, and for the first time the knight noticed his pointed ears and fingers, “that the forest has conspired to make us enemies. I think we could be great friends, Syr Knight, if you’d be willing to hear me out.”
“Maybe,” continued the stranger, “you’d be more willing to listen if I looked like someone you respected.”
The stranger continued talking, but the knight did not hear his words. Instead, she watched the stranger’s body change. The stranger shrunk several feet, his gut expanded to a barrel’s width, and he grew a knotted red beard, and a thick head of red hair to match. He was now the spitting image of the knight’s former lord, the man whose service she had left.
The knight had seen magicks before, but none as dramatic as this.
“Of course,” said the man who now looked just like Torbran, the Thane of Red Fell, “you left Torbran’s service. So you obviously don’t respect his opinion, either. You have yet to speak, and yet I like you, Syr Knight. We both possess a certain disdain for authority. I am hopeful that we can strike a bargain.”
The knight composed herself and said, “I respect Torbran. I simply disagreed with him. You would do well to leave his form and take another.”
The stranger smiled again, and it was his smile played across Torbran’s face, an image that the knight found disconcerting. The stranger shifted again to his own form, but instead of dressing in his pants and cloak, he steeled himself in dark, spiked armor. He put a hand to his chest, took to one knee, and looked up to the knight.
“My liege,” said the stranger. “Now we are knights together! I am Syr Oko, the Clever, and I am bound to help you carry out your mission! Pray tell, what is it? I’m quite curious … “
“To remove you from the forest,” said the knight. “And be on my way.”
The knight reached for the man who called himself Oko, but he pulled away. He stood and drew his sword, and the knight readied herself to battle. But the sword then transformed into a kaleidoscope of butterflies, which flew and parted and regrouped as they passed the knight. The knight watched the butterflies fly away, and Oko laughed a deep, self-serving laugh.
His laughter done, Oko said, “I will tell you, I am not quite ready to leave this forest, Syr Knight. I have plans I am planning, and plots I am plotting, and schemes I am scheming. And this forest is just the place from which to unleash my plans and plots and schemes. No, I cannot leave here just yet.”
“If you won’t come with me willingly, I will take you,” said the knight.
“Oh, a threat indeed,” said Oko. “Assuming you could carry out that threat, why do you even want to? Why do you want to leave the forest? It is the perfect place for lost people like you and me.”
“I am not lost,” said the knight.
“You do not think you are,” said Oko. “You think that, after weeks of ruminating on your problem in the forest, you have finally settled on the only answer. The only possible course of action. You think you can barter with Ayara of Locthwain, and bring your daughter back from the dead. You think you can use the Cauldron of Eternity to revive her.”
“I do,” said the knight. “Torbran warned against it.” The knight did not know why she felt the need to reveal the next truth, but she revealed it nonetheless. “I think it is the only way I will be happy again.”
“That may be,” said Oko, frowning the most insincere of frowns, “But I can tell you, from experience, that the Cauldron is a lie. A trick Ayara plays on her … subjects. The Cauldron gives unlife, not life, to the dead. You would find this solution wanting.”
“What do you care???” yelled the knight, with a force that gave Oko cause to step back from her. “And how would you know anything about the Cauldron? How would you know anything about me?”
Oko found his footing, and decided it was time to end his game.
“Magick, curiosity, and cleverness,” said Oko. “And I said it before: I think we could be friends. That is why I care. You also bristle against the rules the world supplies. You fume because, while the forever-young queen sits in her castle for eternity, your daughter will remain dead, always. You cannot accept that your lord would both order your daughter to her death, and then also order that you not revive her. Even this forest is attempting to control your actions. You should not be talking to me, now, in the first place. To you, all of this is unfair.”
“And I agree,” continued Oko. “Which is why I will come with you.”
“What?” said the knight.
Oko offered the knight his hand, and she found herself taking it. Oko knelt again, and he kissed the knight’s gauntleted hand.
“I have need of a knight for certain … services,” said Oko. “To carry out tasks that I would rather not perform myself. In return your service, I will leave the forest with you.”
Still kneeling, Oko unstrapped and removed the knight’s gauntlet.
“And I will give you one other gift.”
“What?” asked the knight. “What gift do you have to give me?”
“I will make you believe your daughter is still alive.”
Oko kissed the knight’s bare head, and suddenly she remembered. The memories crashed upon mind her like a lance upon a shield, shattering her old way of thinking.
Her daughter did not fight in the battle to defend Red Fell, two months ago. No, her daughter left the Fell days before. She had gone to live, in secret, with Oko. Good, kind Oko, who even now continued to shield the knight’s daughter from harm. The knight would do anything for Oko, because Oko had protected her world. Her daughter lived because of Oko. The knight was sure of it.
“Thank you, Oko,” said the knight. “Thank you, thank you. How can I ever repay you?”
“Oh, Syr Knight,” said Oko, standing and smiling. “I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
Hand-in-hand, Oko and the knight began to walk to the forest’s edge. All the while, the forest laughed and laughed.